David A. Wilson,
Ireland, a Bicycle
& a Tin Whistle

(Blackstaff Press/McGill-Queen's
University Press, 1995)

There are plenty of books out there which will tell you where to go and stay in Ireland. But if you want to know the country, its people and customs as well as you possibly can without actually going there, a good bet is reading David A. Wilson's Ireland, a Bicycle & a Tin Whistle.

As the title suggests, the book is Wilson's recollection of his circumnavigation by two-wheeler of Ireland's rolling green hills and smoky pubs. Along the way, he shares a lot of insight into the Irish mind, its poetry and passion for music, and the political and religious divisions which still keep the island from achieving true unity. (His observations in Northern Ireland, which comprise the first and final sections of the book, are especially poignant, but matter-of-fact; he never becomes maudlin or preachy.)

Wilson, a native of Whitehead in Northern Ireland's northeastern tip, transplanted with his parents first to England and then to Ontario, Canada (where he became a professor of Celtic studies at the University of Toronto), before returning to his homeland for this excursion. And he couldn't have picked a better way to see and experience as much as possible at a purely personal level. In his own words:

You could race through Ireland in a car, sticking to the main routes; but if you take a bicycle, breathe in the air, and wander off into the side roads, you'd be closer to the spirit of the place. You could learn traditional music by the book, sticking to the main notes; but if you take a tin whistle, breathe out the air, and wander off into the variations, you'd be closer to the spirit of the piece. Riding a bicycle or playing a whistle, the journey becomes more than a means to the end of reaching a destination; it becomes an end in itself, its own destination.

Music is an integral part of Wilson's journey. While a tin whistle, for purely practical reasons as a lightly packed cyclist, was his instrument of choice for this trip, there's also plenty more here about borrowed guitars, nationalistic anthems, John Denver songs and folksingers' standards. You'll learn which tunes ran through his head while pedaling through the countryside, and which he stopped to play when he needed a break from the road. You'll sit in with Wilson on countless sessions, and you'll greet with him a who's who of Irish performers he was lucky enough to meet along his way. You'll certainly know which pubs to visit and which to avoid if you're in the same neighborhoods.

Ireland, a Bicycle & a Tin Whistle is part travelogue, part social commentary, with a bit of history, a lot of Irish character and a strong thread of music running throughout. Wilson's colorful, descriptive prose at times approaches poetry in its style. Read this book for a real slice of Irish culture; it will sharpen your desire to see Ireland and its people for yourself, or it will bring your own memories of Ireland into distinct and vivid focus.

Whether or not you've been to Ireland, whether or not you ever plan to go, you could do much worse for yourself than to see it through Wilson's eyes.

As a bonus, the book comes with delightful illustrations by Justin Palmer. Not quite caricatures, these simple drawings capture a wealth of wit and personality. They break up the text wonderfully, making it extra fun to turn the page!

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.